Shenandoah Riverkeeper Halts Nutrient Trading at the Massanutten Sewage Treatment Plant

The Shenandoah Riverkeeper scored a major victory in protecting the Shenandoah watershed by compelling the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to dramatically improve the Massanutten Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) permit and halt nutrient trading at the facility. The previous permit allowed the STP to exceed its permit limits for nutrients and purchase credits to “offset” the excess nitrogen and phosphorus being discharged into Quail Run. In response to our appeal of the permit in state court, the STP also voluntarily agreed to accelerate its implementation schedule – from four years to just one year.

Aerial photo of Massanutten STP by Alan Lehman.

The end of nutrient trading and stricter limits on nutrients from Massanutten will help us better protect Quail Run, Boone Run, and ultimately, the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. This facility discharges treated wastewater from the ski resort area, including the lodge, restaurants, condominiums, and private homes. Unfortunately, it is undersized and incapable of handling the waste load demands. Instead of upgrading the facility, the owners simply purchased nitrogen and phosphorous credits as permitted under the Chesapeake Bay nutrient trading program, allowing the excess discharges to fuel heavy algal growth at the top of the Shenandoah watershed.

Our efforts forced a major rewrite of the permit. DEQ removed trading from this facility, assigned numeric limits to their nitrogen and phosphorous loads and set forth a timeline for the owners to upgrade their plant and operations.

The Chesapeake Bay nutrient trading program is a market-based approach that involves the exchange of pollution allocations between sources. Say Facility X is exceeding its nitrogen and phosphorus limits while Facility Y is staying under its limits. Facility Y sells their unused pollution load to the nutrient trading exchange and Facility X buys these credits to get them under their permit limits. So far so good. The Chesapeake Bay nutrient trading program allows exchanges to take place as long as the facilities are on the same tributary. Only in this case, tributary means the entirety of the Potomac watershed. So the credits may be generated all the way down at Coles Point, VA, where the Potomac meets the Chesapeake Bay, and purchased at the top of the Shenandoah watershed, forcing users of the Shenandoah to have to suffer due to degraded water conditions.

To further complicate matters, credits are co-mingled in a common account so you have no way of tracking where exactly the credits are being generated to assess the overall impact on the Shenandoah River system.

Shenandoah Riverkeeper Mark Frondorf and David Sligh, SRK consultant, signed the 13-page comment letter to DEQ, with significant assistance from Phillip Musegaas, PRKN’s VP of Programs and Litigation. We opposed the original draft permit, arguing that:

  • Pointing out that without protective effluent limits for nitrogen and phosphorous in the individual permit, the discharges will continue to directly, adversely affect the economic and recreational interests of many of our members;
  • Noting that DEQ failed to perform the required analyses that this discharge will meet Virginia water quality standards;
  • Highlighting that Virginia water quality standards include designated uses, criteria (both numeric and narrative) and anti-degradation provisions and the permit only applies numeric criteria;
  • Identifying ample evidence of impairment in Quail Run; and finally,
  • Documenting that nutrient trading at this facility allows local waters to be further degraded.

The importance of halting trading at this facility cannot be overstated. For the past five years, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper organization has been working relentlessly to get all three reaches of the Shenandoah River placed on Virginia’s Impaired Water List, due to nutrient pollution and algae blooms— with little support from DEQ. It has been particularly frustrating to see this facility annually exceed their permit limits for nitrogen and phosphorous and exacerbate an already challenging and persistent algae problem.

With help from Deborah Murray, our legal counsel from the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper is exploring all options regarding our pending permit appeal. Despite our victory on nutrient trading, we remain concerned that DEQ failed to properly analyze the impact of the STP’s discharge on Quail Run, and more stringent limits may be needed in the future. Either way, our work to restore Quail Run and the South Fork of the Shenandoah will continue, but we have taken a major step forward with this victory.



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